The Fables of La Fontaine, by Jean de La Fontaine

Book IX.

I. — The Faithless Depositary.1

Thanks to Memory’s daughters nine,

Animals have graced my line:

Higher heroes in my story

Might have won me less of glory.

Wolves, in language of the sky,

Talk with dogs throughout my verse;

Beasts with others shrewdly vie,

Representing characters;

Fools in furs not second-hand,

Sages, hoof’d or feather’d, stand:

Fewer truly are the latter,

More the former — ay, and fatter.

Flourish also in my scene

Tyrants, villains, mountebanks,

Beasts incapable of thanks,

Beasts of rash and reckless pranks,

Beasts of sly and flattering mien;

Troops of liars, too, I ween.

As to men, of every age,

All are liars, saith the sage.

Had he writ but of the low,

One could hardly think it so;

But that human mortals, all,

Lie like serpents, great and small,

Had another certified it,

I, for one, should have denied it.

He who lies in Aesop’s way,

Or like Homer, minstrel gray,

Is no liar, sooth to say.

Charms that bind us like a dream,

Offspring of their happy art,

Cloak’d in fiction, more than seem

Truth to offer to the heart.

Both have left us works which I

Think unworthy e’er to die.

Liar call not him who squares

All his ends and aims with theirs;

But from sacred truth to vary,

Like the false depositary,

Is to be, by every rule

Both a liar and a fool.

The story goes:

A man of trade,

In Persia, with his neighbour made

Deposit, as he left the state,

Of iron, say a hundredweight.

Return’d, said he, ‘My iron, neighbour.’

‘Your iron! you have lost your labour;

I grieve to say it, — ‘pon my soul,

A rat has eaten up the whole.

My men were sharply scolded at,

But yet a hole, in spite of that,

Was left, as one is wont to be

In every barn or granary,

By which crept in that cursed rat.’

Admiring much the novel thief,

The man affected full belief.

Ere long, his faithless neighbour’s child

He stole away, — a heavy lad, —

And then to supper bade the dad,

Who thus plead off in accents sad:—

‘It was but yesterday I had

A boy as fine as ever smiled,

An only son, as dear as life,

The darling of myself and wife.

Alas! we have him now no more,

And every joy with us is o’er.’

Replied the merchant, ‘Yesternight,

By evening’s faint and dusky ray,

I saw a monstrous owl alight,

And bear your darling son away

To yonder tott’ring ruin gray.’

‘Can I believe you, when you say

An owl bore off: so large a prey?

How could it be?’ the father cried;

‘The thing is surely quite absurd;

My son with ease had kill’d the bird.’

‘The how of it,’ the man replied,

‘Is not my province to decide;

I know I saw your son arise,

Borne through, the air before my eyes.

Why should it seem a strange affair,

Moreover, in a country where

A single rat contrives to eat

A hundred pounds of iron meat,

That owls should be of strength to lift ye

A booby boy that weighs but fifty?’

The other plainly saw the trick,

Restored the iron very quick.

And got, with shame as well as joy,

Possession of his kidnapp’d boy.

The like occurr’d two travellers between.

One was of those

Who wear a microscope, I ween,

Each side the nose.

Would you believe their tales romantic,

Our Europe, in its monsters, beats

The lands that feel the tropic heats,

Surcharged with all that is gigantic.

This person, feeling free

To use the trope hyperbole,

Had seen a cabbage with his eyes

Exceeding any house in size.

‘And I have seen,’ the other cries,

Resolved to leave his fellow in the lurch,

‘A pot that would have held a church.

Why, friend, don’t give that doubting look, —

The pot was made your cabbages to cook.’

This pot-discov’rer was a wit;

The iron-monger, too, was wise.

To such absurd and ultra lies

Their answers were exactly fit.

’Twere doing honour overmuch,

To reason or dispute with such.

To overbid them is the shortest path,

And less provocative of wrath.

1] Bidpaii.

II. — The Two Doves.2

Two doves once cherish’d for each other

The love that brother hath for brother.

But one, of scenes domestic tiring,

To see the foreign world aspiring,

Was fool enough to undertake

A journey long, o’er land and lake.

‘What plan is this?’ the other cried;

‘Wouldst quit so soon thy brother’s side?

This absence is the worst of ills;

Thy heart may bear, but me it kills.

Pray, let the dangers, toil, and care,

Of which all travellers tell,

Your courage somewhat quell.

Still, if the season later were —

O wait the zephyrs! — hasten not —

Just now the raven, on his oak,

In hoarser tones than usual spoke.

My heart forebodes the saddest lot, —

The falcons, nets — Alas, it rains!

My brother, are thy wants supplied —

Provisions, shelter, pocket-guide,

And all that unto health pertains?’

These words occasion’d some demur

In our imprudent traveller.

But restless curiosity

Prevail’d at last; and so said he, —

‘The matter is not worth a sigh;

Three days, at most, will satisfy,

And then, returning, I shall tell

You all the wonders that befell, —

With scenes enchanting and sublime

Shall sweeten all our coming time.

Who seeth nought, hath nought to say.

My travel’s course, from day to day,

Will be the source of great delight.

A store of tales I shall relate, —

Say there I lodged at such a date,

And saw there such and such a sight.

You’ll think it all occurr’d to you. — ’

On this, both, weeping, bade adieu.

Away the lonely wanderer flew. —

A thunder-cloud began to lower;

He sought, as shelter from the shower,

The only tree that graced the plain,

Whose leaves ill turn’d the pelting rain.

The sky once more serene above,

On flew our drench’d and dripping dove,

And dried his plumage as he could.

Next, on the borders of a wood,

He spied some scatter’d grains of wheat,

Which one, he thought, might safely eat;

For there another dove he saw. —

He felt the snare around him draw!

This wheat was but a treacherous bait

To lure poor pigeons to their fate.

The snare had been so long in use,

With beak and wings he struggled loose:

Some feathers perish’d while it stuck;

But, what was worst in point of luck,

A hawk, the cruellest of foes,

Perceived him clearly as he rose,

Off dragging, like a runaway,

A piece of string. The bird of prey

Had bound him, in a moment more,

Much faster than he was before,

But from the clouds an eagle came,

And made the hawk himself his game.

By war of robbers profiting,

The dove for safety plied the wing,

And, lighting on a ruin’d wall,

Believed his dangers ended all.

A roguish boy had there a sling,

(Age pitiless!

We must confess,)

And, by a most unlucky fling,

Half kill’d our hapless dove;

Who now, no more in love

With foreign travelling,

And lame in leg and wing,

Straight homeward urged his crippled flight,

Fatigued, but glad, arrived at night,

In truly sad and piteous plight.

The doves rejoin’d, I leave you all to say,

What pleasure might their pains repay.

Ah, happy lovers, would you roam? —

Pray, let it not be far from home.

To each the other ought to be

A world of beauty ever new;

In each the other ought to see

The whole of what is good and true.

Myself have loved; nor would I then,

For all the wealth of crownèd men,

Or arch celestial, paved with gold,

The presence of those woods have sold,

And fields, and banks, and hillocks, which

Were by the joyful steps made rich,

And smiled beneath the charming eyes

Of her who made my heart a prize —

To whom I pledged it, nothing loath,

And seal’d the pledge with virgin oath.

Ah, when will time such moments bring again?

To me are sweet and charming objects vain —

My soul forsaking to its restless mood?

O, did my wither’d heart but dare

To kindle for the bright and good,

Should not I find the charm still there?

Is love, to me, with things that were?

2] Bidpaii. By common consent this fable is ranked among La Fontaine’s very best. See Translator’s Preface.

III. — The Monkey and the Leopard.3

A monkey and a leopard were

The rivals at a country fair.

Each advertised his own attractions.

Said one, ‘Good sirs, the highest place

My merit knows; for, of his grace,

The king hath seen me face to face;

And, judging by his looks and actions,

I gave the best of satisfactions.

When I am dead, ’tis plain enough,

My skin will make his royal muff.

So richly is it streak’d and spotted,

So delicately waved and dotted,

Its various beauty cannot fail to please.’

And, thus invited, everybody sees;

But soon they see, and soon depart.

The monkey’s show-bill to the mart

His merits thus sets forth the while,

All in his own peculiar style:—

‘Come, gentlemen, I pray you, come;

In magic arts I am at home.

The whole variety in which

My neighbour boasts himself so rich,

Is to his simple skin confined,

While mine is living in the mind.

Your humble servant, Monsieur Gille,

The son-in-law to Tickleville,

Pope’s monkey, and of great renown,

Is now just freshly come to town,

Arrived in three bateaux, express,

Your worships to address;

For he can speak, you understand;

Can dance, and practise sleight-of-hand;

Can jump through hoops, and balance sticks;

In short, can do a thousand tricks;

And all for blancos six — 4

Not, messieurs, for a sou.

And, if you think the price won’t do,

When you have seen, then he’ll restore

Each man his money at the door.’

The ape was not to reason blind;

For who in wealth of dress can find

Such charms as dwell in wealth of mind?

One meets our ever-new desires,

The other in a moment tires.

Alas! how many lords there are,

Of mighty sway and lofty mien,

Who, like this leopard at the fair,

Show all their talents on the skin!

3] Aesop; also Avianus.

4] Blancos six. — The blanc was a French copper coin, six of which were equivalent in value to something over a penny of the present English money.

IV. — The Acorn and the Pumpkin.

God’s works are good. This truth to prove

Around the world I need not move;

I do it by the nearest pumpkin.

‘This fruit so large, on vine so small,’

Surveying once, exclaim’d a bumpkin —

‘What could He mean who made us all?

He’s left this pumpkin out of place.

If I had order’d in the case,

Upon that oak it should have hung —

A noble fruit as ever swung

To grace a tree so firm and strong.

Indeed, it was a great mistake,

As this discovery teaches,

That I myself did not partake

His counsels whom my curate preaches.

All things had then in order come;

This acorn, for example,

Not bigger than my thumb,

Had not disgraced a tree so ample.

The more I think, the more I wonder

To see outraged proportion’s laws,

And that without the slightest cause;

God surely made an awkward blunder.’

With such reflections proudly fraught,

Our sage grew tired of mighty thought,

And threw himself on Nature’s lap,

Beneath an oak, — to take his nap.

Plump on his nose, by lucky hap,

An acorn fell: he waked, and in

The matted beard that graced his chin,

He found the cause of such a bruise

As made him different language use.

‘O! O!’ he cried; ‘I bleed! I bleed!

And this is what has done the deed!

But, truly, what had been my fate,

Had this had half a pumpkin’s weight!

I see that God had reasons good,

And all his works well understood.’

Thus home he went in humbler mood.5

5] This fable was much admired by Madame de Sévigné. See Translator’s Preface.

V. — The Schoolboy, the Pedant, and the Owner of a Garden.

A boy who savour’d of his school, —

A double rogue and double fool, —

By youth and by the privilege

Which pedants have, by ancient right,

To alter reason, and abridge, —

A neighbour robb’d, with fingers light,

Of flowers and fruit. This neighbour had,

Of fruits that make the autumn glad,

The very best — and none but he.

Each season brought, from plant and tree,

To him its tribute; for, in spring,

His was the brightest blossoming.

One day, he saw our hopeful lad

Perch’d on the finest tree he had,

Not only stuffing down the fruit,

But spoiling, like a Vandal brute,

The buds that play advance-courier

Of plenty in the coming year.

The branches, too, he rudely tore,

And carried things to such a pass,

The owner sent his servant o’er

To tell the master of his class.

The latter came, and came attended

By all the urchins of his school,

And thus one plunderer’s mischief mended

By pouring in an orchard-full.

It seems the pedant was intent

On making public punishment,

To teach his boys the force of law,

And strike their roguish hearts with awe.

The use of which he first must show

From Virgil and from Cicero,

And many other ancients noted,

From whom, in their own tongues, he quoted.

So long, indeed, his lecture lasted,

While not a single urchin fasted,

That, ere its close, their thievish crimes

Were multiplied a hundred times.

I hate all eloquence and reason

Expended plainly out of season.

Of all the beasts that earth have cursed

While they have fed on’t,

The school-boy strikes me as the worst —

Except the pedant.

The better of these neighbours two

For me, I’m sure, would never do.

VI. — The Sculptor and the Statue of Jupiter.

A block of marble was so fine,

To buy it did a sculptor hasten.

‘What shall my chisel, now ’tis mine —

A god, a table, or a basin?’

‘A god,’ said he, ‘the thing shall be;

I’ll arm it, too, with thunder.

Let people quake, and bow the knee

With reverential wonder.’

So well the cunning artist wrought

All things within a mortal’s reach,

That soon the marble wanted nought

Of being Jupiter, but speech.

Indeed, the man whose skill did make

Had scarcely laid his chisel down,

Before himself began to quake,

And fear his manufacture’s frown.

And even this excess of faith

The poet once scarce fell behind,

The hatred fearing, and the wrath,

Of gods the product of his mind.

This trait we see in infancy

Between the baby and its doll,

Of wax or china, it may be —

A pocket stuff’d, or folded shawl.

Imagination rules the heart:

And here we find the fountain head

From whence the pagan errors start,

That o’er the teeming nations spread.

With violent and flaming zeal,

Each takes his own chimera’s part;

Pygmalion6 doth a passion feel

For Venus chisel’d by his art.

All men, as far as in them lies,

Create realities of dreams.

To truth our nature proves but ice;

To falsehood, fire it seems.

6] Pygmalion. — The poet here takes an erroneous view of the story of Pygmalion. That sculptor fell in love with his statue of the nymph Galatea, to which Venus gave life at his request. See Ovid, Metam. Book X.

VII. — The Mouse Metamorphosed into a Maid.7

A mouse once from an owl’s beak fell;

I’d not have pick’d it up, I wis;

A Brahmin did it: very well;

Each country has its prejudice.

The mouse, indeed, was sadly bruised.

Although, as neighbours, we are used

To be more kind to many others,

The Brahmins treat the mice as brothers.

The notion haunts their heads, that when

The soul goes forth from dying men,

It enters worm, or bird, or beast,

As Providence or Fate is pleased;

And on this mystery rests their law,

Which from Pythagoras they’re said to draw.

And hence the Brahmin kindly pray’d

To one who knew the wizard’s trade,

To give the creature, wounded sore,

The form in which it lodged before.

Forthwith the mouse became a maid,

Of years about fifteen;

A lovelier was never seen.

She would have waked, I ween,

In Priam’s son, a fiercer flame

Than did the beauteous Grecian dame.

Surprised at such a novelty,

The Brahmin to the damsel cried,

‘Your choice is free;

For every he

Will seek you for his bride.’

Said she, ‘Am I to have a voice?

The strongest, then, shall be my choice.’

‘O sun!’ the Brahmin cried, ‘this maid is thine,

And thou shalt be a son-in-law of mine.’

‘No,’ said the sun, ‘this murky cloud, it seems,

In strength exceeds me, since he hides my beams;

And him I counsel you to take.’

Again the reverend Brahmin spake —

‘O cloud, on-flying with thy stores of water,

Pray wast thou born to wed my daughter?’

‘Ah, no, alas! for, you may see,

The wind is far too strong for me.

My claims with Boreas’ to compare,

I must confess, I do not dare.’

‘O wind,’ then cried the Brahmin, vex’d,

And wondering what would hinder next, —

‘Approach, and, with thy sweetest air,

Embrace — possess — the fairest fair.’

The wind, enraptured, thither blew; —

A mountain stopp’d him as he flew,

To him now pass’d the tennis-ball,

And from him to a creature small.

Said he, ‘I’d wed the maid, but that

I’ve had a quarrel with the rat.

A fool were I to take the bride

From one so sure to pierce my side.’

The rat! It thrill’d the damsel’s ear;

To name at once seem’d sweet and dear.

The rat! ’Twas one of Cupid’s blows;

The like full many a maiden knows;

But all of this beneath the rose.

One smacketh ever of the place

Where first he show’d the world his face.

Thus far the fable’s clear as light;

But, if we take a nearer sight,

There lurks within its drapery

Somewhat of graceless sophistry;

For who, that worships e’en the glorious sun,

Would not prefer to wed some cooler one?

And doth a flea’s exceed a giant’s might,

Because the former can the latter bite?

And, by the rule of strength, the rat

Had sent his bride to wed the cat;

From cat to dog, and onward still

To wolf or tiger, if you will:

Indeed, the fabulist might run

A circle backward to the sun. —

But to the change the tale supposes, —

In learned phrase, metempsychosis.

The very thing the wizard did

Its falsity exposes —

If that indeed were ever hid.

According to the Brahmin’s plan,

The proud aspiring soul of man,

And souls that dwell in humbler forms

Of rats and mice, and even worms,

All issue from a common source,

And, hence, they are the same of course. —

Unequal but by accident

Of organ and of tenement,

They use one pair of legs, or two,

Or e’en with none contrive to do,

As tyrant matter binds them to.

Why, then, could not so fine a frame

Constrain its heavenly guest

To wed the solar flame?

A rat her love possess’d.

In all respects, compared and weigh’d,

The souls of men and souls of mice

Quite different are made, —

Unlike in sort as well as size.

Each fits and fills its destined part

As Heaven doth well provide;

Nor witch, nor fiend, nor magic art,

Can set their laws aside.

7] Bidpaii.

VIII. — The Fool who Sold Wisdom.8

Of fools come never in the reach:

No rule can I more wisely teach.

Nor can there be a better one

Than this, — distemper’d heads to shun.

We often see them, high and low.

They tickle e’en the royal ear,

As, privileged and free from fear,

They hurl about them joke and jeer,

At pompous lord or silly beau.

A fool, in town, did wisdom cry;

The people, eager, flock’d to buy.

Each for his money got,

Paid promptly on the spot,

Besides a box upon the head,

Two fathoms’ length of thread.

The most were vex’d — but quite in vain

The public only mock’d their pain.

The wiser they who nothing said,

But pocketed the box and thread.

To search the meaning of the thing

Would only laughs and hisses bring.

Hath reason ever guaranteed

The wit of fools in speech or deed?

’Tis said of brainless heads in France,

The cause of what they do is chance.

One dupe, however, needs must know

What meant the thread, and what the blow;

So ask’d a sage, to make it sure.

‘They’re both hieroglyphics pure,’

The sage replied without delay;

‘All people well advised will stay

From fools this fibre’s length away,

Or get — I hold it sure as fate —

The other symbol on the pate.

So far from cheating you of gold,

The fool this wisdom fairly sold.’

8] Abstemius.

IX. — The Oyster and the Litigants.

Two pilgrims on the sand espied

An oyster thrown up by the tide.

In hope, both swallow’d ocean’s fruit;

But ere the fact there came dispute.

While one stoop’d down to take the prey,

The other push’d him quite away.

Said he, “Twere rather meet

To settle which shall eat.

Why, he who first the oyster saw

Should be its eater, by the law;

The other should but see him do it.’

Replied his mate, ‘If thus you view it,

Thank God the lucky eye is mine.’

‘But I’ve an eye not worse than thine,’

The other cried, ‘and will be cursed,

If, too, I didn’t see it first.’

‘You saw it, did you? Grant it true,

I saw it then, and felt it too.’

Amidst this sweet affair,

Arrived a person very big,

Ycleped Sir Nincom Periwig.9

They made him judge, — to set the matter square.

Sir Nincom, with a solemn face,

Took up the oyster and the case:

In opening both, the first he swallow’d,

And, in due time, his judgment follow’d.

‘Attend: the court awards you each a shell

Cost free; depart in peace, and use them well.’

Foot up the cost of suits at law,

The leavings reckon and awards,

The cash you’ll see Sir Nincom draw,

And leave the parties — purse and cards.10

9] Sir Nincom Periwig. — The name in La Fontaine is Perrin Dandin, which is also that of the peasant judge in Rabelais (Book III., ch. 41), and the judge in Racine’s “Plaideurs” (produced in 1668). Molière’s “George Dandin” (produced 1664), may also have helped La Fontaine to the name. The last-mentioned character is a farmer, but, like the others, he is a species of incapable; and the word dandin in the old French dictionaries is given as signifying inaptness or incapacity.

10] The oyster and lawyer story is also treated in Fable XXI., Book I. (The Hornet and the Bees).

X. — The Wolf and the Lean Dog.11

A troutling, some time since,12

Endeavour’d vainly to convince

A hungry fisherman

Of his unfitness for the frying-pan.

That controversy made it plain

That letting go a good secure,

In hope of future gain,

Is but imprudence pure.

The fisherman had reason good —

The troutling did the best he could —

Both argued for their lives.

Now, if my present purpose thrives,

I’ll prop my former proposition

By building on a small addition.

A certain wolf, in point of wit

The prudent fisher’s opposite,

A dog once finding far astray,

Prepared to take him as his prey.

The dog his leanness pled;

‘Your lordship, sure,’ he said,

‘Cannot be very eager

To eat a dog so meagre.

To wait a little do not grudge:

The wedding of my master’s only daughter

Will cause of fatted calves and fowls a slaughter;

And then, as you yourself can judge,

I cannot help becoming fatter.’

The wolf, believing, waived the matter,

And so, some days therefrom,

Return’d with sole design to see

If fat enough his dog might be.

The rogue was now at home:

He saw the hunter through the fence.

‘My friend,’ said he, ‘please wait;

I’ll be with you a moment hence,

And fetch our porter of the gate.’

This porter was a dog immense,

That left to wolves no future tense.

Suspicion gave our wolf a jog, —

It might not be so safely tamper’d.

‘My service to your porter dog,’

Was his reply, as off he scamper’d.

His legs proved better than his head,

And saved him life to learn his trade.

11] Aesop.

12] A troutling. — See Book V., Fable III. — Translator.

XI. — Nothing Too Much.13

Look where we will throughout creation,

We look in vain for moderation.

There is a certain golden mean,

Which Nature’s sovereign Lord, I ween,

Design’d the path of all forever.

Doth one pursue it? Never.

E’en things which by their nature bless,

Are turn’d to curses by excess.

The grain, best gift of Ceres fair,

Green waving in the genial air,

By overgrowth exhausts the soil;

By superfluity of leaves

Defrauds the treasure of its sheaves,

And mocks the busy farmer’s toil.

Not less redundant is the tree,

So sweet a thing is luxury.

The grain within due bounds to keep,

Their Maker licenses the sheep

The leaves excessive to retrench.

In troops they spread across the plain,

And, nibbling down the hapless grain,

Contrive to spoil it, root and branch.

So, then, with, licence from on high,

The wolves are sent on sheep to prey;

The whole the greedy gluttons slay;

Or, if they don’t, they try.

Next, men are sent on wolves to take

The vengeance now condign:

In turn the same abuse they make

Of this behest divine.

Of animals, the human kind

Are to excess the most inclined.

On low and high we make the charge, —

Indeed, upon the race at large.

There liveth not the soul select

That sinneth not in this respect.

Of “Nought too much,” the fact is,

All preach the truth, — none practise.

13] Abstemius.

XII. — The Wax-Candle.14

From bowers of gods the bees came down to man.

On Mount Hymettus,15 first, they say,

They made their home, and stored away

The treasures which the zephyrs fan.

When men had robb’d these daughters of the sky,

And left their palaces of nectar dry, —

Or, as in French the thing’s explain’d

When hives were of their honey drain’d —

The spoilers ‘gan the wax to handle,

And fashion’d from it many a candle.

Of these, one, seeing clay, made brick by fire,

Remain uninjured by the teeth of time,

Was kindled into great desire

For immortality sublime.

And so this new Empedocles16

Upon the blazing pile one sees,

Self-doom’d by purest folly

To fate so melancholy.

The candle lack’d philosophy:

All things are made diverse to be.

To wander from our destined tracks —

There cannot be a vainer wish;

But this Empedocles of wax,

That melted in the chafing-dish,

Was truly not a greater fool

Than he of whom we read at school.

14] Abstemius.

15] Mount Hymettus. — This was the mountain whence the Greeks got fine honey.

16] Empedocles. — A Pythagorean philosopher who asserted that he had been, before becoming a man, a girl, a boy, a shrub, a bird, and a fish. He is further credited with the vanity of wishing to be thought a god, and hence of throwing himself into Mount Etna to conceal his death. Unfortunately for the success of this scheme, says one story, he convicted himself of suicide by inadvertently leaving his slippers at the foot of the volcano.

XIII. — Jupiter and the Passenger.17

How danger would the gods enrich,

If we the vows remember’d which

It drives us to! But, danger past,

Kind Providence is paid the last.

No earthly debt is treated so.

‘Now, Jove,’ the wretch exclaims, ‘will wait;

He sends no sheriff to one’s gate,

Like creditors below;’

But, let me ask the dolt,

What means the thunderbolt?

A passenger, endanger’d by the sea,

Had vow’d a hundred oxen good

To him who quell’d old Terra’s brood.

He had not one: as well might he

Have vow’d a hundred elephants.

Arrived on shore, his good intents

Were dwindled to the smoke which rose

An offering merely for the nose,

From half a dozen beefless bones.

‘Great Jove,’ said he, ‘behold my vow!

The fumes of beef thou breathest now

Are all thy godship ever owns:

From debt I therefore stand acquitted.’

With seeming smile, the god submitted,

But not long after caught him well,

By sending him a dream, to tell

Of treasure hid. Off ran the liar,

As if to quench a house on fire,

And on a band of robbers fell.

As but a crown he had that day,

He promised them of sterling gold

A hundred talents truly told;

Directing where conceal’d they lay,

In such a village on their way.

The rogues so much the tale suspected,

Said one, ‘If we should suffer you to,

You’d cheaply get us all detected;

Go, then, and bear your gold to Pluto.’

17] Aesop.

XIV. — The Cat and the Fox.

The cat and fox, when saints were all the rage,

Together went on pilgrimage.

Arch hypocrites and swindlers, they,

By sleight of face and sleight of paw,

Regardless both of right and law,

Contrived expenses to repay,

By eating many a fowl and cheese,

And other tricks as bad as these.

Disputing served them to beguile

The road of many a weary mile.

Disputing! but for this resort,

The world would go to sleep, in short.

Our pilgrims, as a thing of course,

Disputed till their throats were hoarse.

Then, dropping to a lower tone,

They talk’d of this, and talk’d of that,

Till Renard whisper’d to the cat,

‘You think yourself a knowing one:

How many cunning tricks have you?

For I’ve a hundred, old and new,

All ready in my haversack.’

The cat replied, ‘I do not lack,

Though with but one provided;

And, truth to honour, for that matter,

I hold it than a thousand better.’

In fresh dispute they sided;

And loudly were they at it, when

Approach’d a mob of dogs and men.

‘Now,’ said the cat, ‘your tricks ransack,

And put your cunning brains to rack,

One life to save; I’ll show you mine —

A trick, you see, for saving nine.’

With that, she climb’d a lofty pine.

The fox his hundred ruses tried,

And yet no safety found.

A hundred times he falsified

The nose of every hound. —

Was here, and there, and everywhere,

Above, and under ground;

But yet to stop he did not dare,

Pent in a hole, it was no joke,

To meet the terriers or the smoke.

So, leaping into upper air,

He met two dogs, that choked him there.

Expedients may be too many,

Consuming time to choose and try.

On one, but that as good as any,

’Tis best in danger to rely.

XV. — The Husband, the Wife, and the Thief.18

A man that loved, — and loved his wife, —

Still led an almost joyless life.

No tender look, nor gracious word,

Nor smile, that, coming from a bride,

Its object would have deified,

E’er told her doting lord

The love with which he burn’d

Was in its kind return’d.

Still unrepining at his lot,

This man, thus tied in Hymen’s knot,

Thank’d God for all the good he got.

But why? If love doth fail to season

Whatever pleasures Hymen gives,

I’m sure I cannot see the reason

Why one for him the happier lives.

However, since his wife

Had ne’er caress’d him in her life,

He made complaint of it one night.

The entrance of a thief

Cut short his tale of grief,

And gave the lady such a fright,

She shrunk from dreaded harms

Within her husband’s arms.

‘Good thief,’ cried he,

‘This joy so sweet, I owe to thee:

Now take, as thy reward,

Of all that owns me lord,

Whatever suits thee save my spouse;

Ay, if thou pleasest, take the house.’

As thieves are not remarkably

O’erstock’d with modesty,

This fellow made quite free.

From this account it doth appear,

The passions all are ruled by fear.

Aversion may be conquer’d by it,

And even love may not defy it.

But still some cases there have been

Where love hath ruled the roast, I ween.

That lover, witness, highly bred,

Who burnt his house above his head,

And all to clasp a certain dame,

And bear her harmless through the flame.

This transport through the fire,

I own, I much admire;

And for a Spanish soul, reputed coolish,

I think it grander even than ’twas foolish.19

18] Bidpaii.

19] ’Twas foolish. — La Fontaine here refers to the adventure of the Spanish Count Villa Medina with Elizabeth of France, wife of Philip IV. of Spain. The former, having invited the Spanish court to a splendid entertainment in his palace, had it set on fire, that he might personally rescue the said lady from its flames. — Translator.

XVI. — The Treasure and the Two Men.20

A man whose credit fail’d, and what was worse,

Who lodged the devil in his purse, —

That is to say, lodged nothing there, —

By self-suspension in the air

Concluded his accounts to square,

Since, should he not, he understood,

From various tokens, famine would —

A death for which no mortal wight

Had ever any appetite.

A ruin, crown’d with ivy green,

Was of his tragedy the scene.

His hangman’s noose he duly tied,

And then to drive a nail he tried; —

But by his blows the wall gave way,

Now tremulous and old,

Disclosing to the light of day

A sum of hidden gold.

He clutch’d it up, and left Despair

To struggle with his halter there.

Nor did the much delighted man

E’en stop to count it as he ran.

But, while he went, the owner came,

Who loved it with a secret flame,

Too much indeed for kissing, —

And found his money — missing!

‘O Heavens!’ he cried, ‘shall I

Such riches lose, and still not die?

Shall I not hang? — as I, in fact,

Might justly do if cord I lack’d;

But now, without expense, I can;

This cord here only lacks a man.’

The saving was no saving clause;

It suffer’d not his heart to falter,

Until it reach’d his final pause

As full possessor of the halter, —

’Tis thus the miser often grieves:

Whoe’er the benefit receives

Of what he owns, he never must —

Mere treasurer for thieves,

Or relatives, or dust.

But what say we about the trade

In this affair by Fortune made?

Why, what but that it was just like her!

In freaks like this delighteth she.

The shorter any turn may be,

The better it is sure to strike her.

It fills that goddess full of glee

A self-suspended man to see;

And that it does especially,

When made so unexpectedly.

20] The story of this fable has been traced to the Epigrams of Ausonius who was born at Bordeaux, and lived in the fourth century.

XVII. — The Monkey and the Cat.

Sly Bertrand and Ratto in company sat,

(The one was a monkey, the other a cat,)

Co-servants and lodgers:

More mischievous codgers

Ne’er mess’d from a platter, since platters were flat.

Was anything wrong in the house or about it,

The neighbours were blameless, — no mortal could doubt it;

For Bertrand was thievish, and Ratto so nice,

More attentive to cheese than he was to the mice.

One day the two plunderers sat by the fire,

Where chestnuts were roasting, with looks of desire.

To steal them would be a right noble affair.

A double inducement our heroes drew there —

‘Twould benefit them, could they swallow their fill,

And then ‘twould occasion to somebody ill.

Said Bertrand to Ratto, ‘My brother, to-day

Exhibit your powers in a masterly way,

And take me these chestnuts, I pray.

Which were I but otherwise fitted

(As I am ingeniously witted)

For pulling things out of the flame,

Would stand but a pitiful game.’

“Tis done,’ replied Ratto, all prompt to obey;

And thrust out his paw in a delicate way.

First giving the ashes a scratch,

He open’d the coveted batch;

Then lightly and quickly impinging,

He drew out, in spite of the singeing,

One after another, the chestnuts at last, —

While Bertrand contrived to devour them as fast.

A servant girl enters. Adieu to the fun.

Our Ratto was hardly contented, says one. —

No more are the princes, by flattery paid

For furnishing help in a different trade,

And burning their fingers to bring

More power to some mightier king.21

21] For Madame de Sévigné’s opinion of this fable, see the Translator’s Preface.

XVIII. — The Kite and the Nightingale.22

A noted thief, the kite,

Had set a neighbourhood in fright,

And raised the clamorous noise

Of all the village boys,

When, by misfortune, — sad to say, —

A nightingale fell in his way.

Spring’s herald begg’d him not to eat

A bird for music — not for meat.

‘O spare!’ cried she, ‘and I’ll relate

‘The crime of Tereus and his fate.’ —

‘What’s Tereus?23 Is it food for kites?’ —

‘No, but a king, of female rights

The villain spoiler, whom I taught

A lesson with repentance fraught;

And, should it please you not to kill,

My song about his fall

Your very heart shall thrill,

As it, indeed, does all.’ —

Replied the kite, a ‘pretty thing!

When I am faint and famishing,

To let you go, and hear you sing?’ —

‘Ah, but I entertain the king!’ —

‘Well, when he takes you, let him hear

Your tale, full wonderful, no doubt;

For me, a kite, I’ll go without.’

An empty stomach hath no ear.24

22] Abstemius; also Aesop.

23] What’s Tereus? — See story of Tereus Philomela and Progne, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. — See also Fable XV., Book III., and Note.

24] An empty stomach hath no ear. — Cato the Censor said in one of his speeches to the Romans, who were clamouring for a distribution of corn, “It is a difficult task, my fellow-citizens, to speak to the belly, because it hath no ears." — Plutarch’s Life of Cato (Langhorne’s ed.). “The belly has no ears, nor is it to be filled with fair words." — Rabelais, Book IV., ch. 63.

XIX. — The Shepherd and His Flock.25

‘What! shall I lose them one by one,

This stupid coward throng?

And never shall the wolf have done?

They were at least a thousand strong,

But still they’ve let poor Robin26 fall a prey!

Ah, woe’s the day!

Poor Robin Wether lying dead!

He follow’d for a bit of bread

His master through the crowded city,

And would have follow’d, had he led,

Around the world. O! what a pity!

My pipe, and even step, he knew;

To meet me when I came, he flew;

In hedge-row shade we napp’d together;

Alas, alas, my Robin Wether!’

When Willy thus had duly said

His eulogy upon the dead

And unto everlasting fame

Consign’d poor Robin Wether’s name,

He then harangued the flock at large,

From proud old chieftain rams

Down to the smallest lambs,

Addressing them this weighty charge, —

Against the wolf, as one, to stand

In firm, united, fearless band,

By which they might expel him from their land.

Upon their faith, they would not flinch,

They promised him, a single inch.

‘We’ll choke,’ said they, ‘the murderous glutton

Who robbed of us of our Robin Mutton.’

Their lives they pledged against the beast,

And Willy gave them all a feast.

But evil Fate, than Phoebus faster,

Ere night had brought a new disaster:

A wolf there came. By nature’s law,

The total flock were prompt to run;

And yet ’twas not the wolf they saw,

But shadow of him from the setting sun.

Harangue a craven soldiery,

What heroes they will seem to be!

But let them snuff the smoke of battle,

Or even hear the ramrods rattle,

Adieu to all their spunk and mettle:

Your own example will be vain,

And exhortations, to retain

The timid cattle.

25] Abstemius.

26] Robin. — Rabelais, in his Pantagruel, Book IV., ch. 4, has Robin, Robin Mouton, &c.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57